Cyber-Bullying: No Kids' Game

CYBERSPACE, 2006 (D.O.T.) -- Two freshman girls logged on to a website and created a profile for a teacher they didn't like. Under interests they wrote "hard core porn."

An unpopular kid that cheerleaders made fun of stole one of the girl's buddy list, an online address book of her friends' screen names and offered it back - but only in exchange for sexy pictures.

A 15-year-old girl was stabbed in the back several times allegedly by a 13-year-old former friend after getting into an argument on a popular Internet blog-site. The 13-year-old was arrested and charged with aggravated battery.

Other teens send text message threats and profanity to classmates over cell phones while teen blogs propel gossip and cruel jokes anonymously and instantaneously. Though schools are taking bullying more seriously and adding new anti-bullying programs, they're struggling with how to deal with bullying that often happens out of school - and out of anyone's sight.

"This is the new form of bullying," says a school district administrator who oversees anti-bullying efforts. "I think parents just don't know what to do about it. There's phone, cameras and so many ways they can spread rumors."

Across America, concerned school officials are conducting cyber-bullying seminars for parents, asking students not to tease or harass classmates in cyberspace and addressing the topic in student conduct rules.

Private schools, which have more authority to regulate student behavior are also taking a zero-tolerance policy. St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale for example, has already suspended a dozen students for inappropriate comments and behavior in Cyberspace.

Schools have been quick to address traditional bullying over the past decade. But experts say cyber bullying is harder to detect and deal with because it takes place outside of school.

In a study of 8,000 students nationally, it was found that 80% of children ages 10 to 13 had been involved in cyber-bullying. Kids, however, don't always tell their parents when they are the victims, experts say. Some fear parents will take the Internet away.

As teenagers get older, the harassment can get worse. Last year, a student who had been picked on by a bunch of cheerleaders stole the girl's buddy list containing the screen names of all her friends and wouldn't give it back unless she sent him sexy pictures. The boy was suspended from school.

"He was trying to embarrass her like she was doing to him," said a police investigator. "That was the only way he could get back at her. Ex-boyfriends and girlfriends are the worse. They break up and those pictures that they took are posted on the Internet and it gets nasty."

With the growth of computers in the home - and children's bedrooms - cyber-bullying may be on the rise. But what makes children and teens vulnerable to the cyber attacks from classmates is also what makes them vulnerable to sexual predators: too much personal information on the Web.

Though many are attracted to the Web so they can share postings with friends, it's also giving them a stage on which to embarrass themselves. Some kids even share passwords to e-mail and blog sites. When the friendship ends, the cyber-bullying often begins.

"They go in and change their profile to say they're gay, they do drugs and drink," says a technology teacher. "They'll pretend they are someone else and write 'I hate you.' Sometimes a lot of it is playful bantering, but sometimes it gets malicious."

Officials emphasize parents must take a more proactive role. Sometimes this would include purchasing monitoring software and moving the computer to a location that is not private or hidden.

"Some kids are more technologically advanced than their parents," says one official. "But that's no excuse for not monitoring their activities. Parents need to know what's going on so they know how to protect their children."

"It's up to the kids to be responsible for their own behavior, whether online or not," says a child psychologist. "But ultimately, teaching children how to behave appropriately is the parents' responsibility."

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